LONDON - A wholly owned Ford Motor Co. finance subsidiary faces criminal charges in Britain for sending unsolicited credit cards through the mails.

Britain's Office of Fair Trading, the rough equivalent of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, confirmed last week that it is investigating and considering formal charges against Associates Capital Corp., part of Ford's Financial Services Group and the second largest U.S. independent finance company.

The U.S. parent, based in Dallas, was acquired by Ford in 1989 and owns or manages $30 billion in assets.

The investigation follows complaints from dozens of consumers in Britain that they received unsolicited Visa credit cards in the mail from The Associates.

Unlike the United States, where banks and finance companies rely on the direct-mail approach to market credit cards, it is illegal in Britain to extend credit to a consumer who has not requested it in writing.

'We understand that the cards had not been requested,' a spokesman for the British agency said last week. '(This) is a criminal offense, and we are looking into it.'

If the Ford subsidiary is found guilty of a crime, the spokesman said, it could be hit with an unlimited fine and up to a two-year jail term for any corporate officer found at fault.

The situation arose in October, when The Associates bought 100,000 retail accounts from several British department stores. It then offered to upgrade the store cards to fully fledged Visa credit cards with a credit balance of up to (L)3,000, or about $4,500.

But Associated spokesman Mike Hall denied that the Visa cards were pushed on customers in violation of British law.

'We wrote to all customers ... and gave them the opportunity to refuse the offer. We are now cooperating fully with the government,' he said.

Ford, which recently launched its own Barclaycard credit card in Britain through Ford Credit, has moved to distance itself from the dispute. A Ford of Europe spokesman last week declined to comment and referred all questions to Ford Credit.

' This is nothing to do with the Ford card, and The Associates has nothing to do with Ford Credit,' Ford Credit Europe spokesman David Nash said.

'They should not be confused with anything that Ford Credit and Barclaycard are doing, and there is no link between them and Ford Britain or Ford Europe.'

But at least one British consumer isn't so willing to let Ford or The Associates off the hook.

Linda Averillo, who works for a lending institution in Worthing, in the south of England, says the incident has tarnished the image of both in her eyes.

'The card just arrived. I never asked for it, ' she said last week. 'The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I became. Any company that resorts to this sort of overly aggressive marketing leaves a lot to be desired.'

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